Back from the Road: Saludos, Guatemaltecos!
I arrived to warm, breezy weather in Guatemala City and had just enough time to eat a mango and some papaya on the street outside the airport before I was picked up by Javier Recinos – twin brother and farm-managing partner of
Jorge Recinos, who has been our main contact at the farm – and Javier's wife, Carla. I admit that I didn't immediately recognize that it wasn't Jorge, having not seen them in almost two years and, well, them being twins and all, but it didn't take me too long to figure it out and, thankfully, I didn't embarrass myself. Our first order of business was a big family dinner with Jorge, his wife Ana, and their kids, as well as Noemi and Antonio, the matriarch and patriarch of this warm, friendly family. As you may recall from Counter Culture's past trip reports, Finca Nueva Armenia is pretty remote: an 8-hour trip from Guatemala City, in fact. Jorge and Javier each spend two weeks a month at the farm and two weeks in Guatemala City, and on our last visit Antonio kept us entertained during our journey by eating a gigantic bag of candy, pestering Jorge the whole way, and telling stories of his youthful adventures on the farm. Unfortunately, Antonio's health has deteriorated and his trips to the farm are more rare, and, in order to keep the whole family together for this relationship-building visit, we stayed in Guatemala City, where we would also be able to cup coffee together and visit the mill where the coffee is processed for export.
And, although Counter Culture's last trip to Finca Nueva Armenia was a short one (curtailed by a strike on the main highway that forced us to leave earlier than we had planned), it was easy to pick up conversation where we left off at the last visit and over our days together we discussed everything from coffee drying methods to politics to family. Since the last time we sat at a table together, Jorge and his wife Ana had a baby girl, Javier finished his graduate degree, and the farm has decided to submit coffee to the 2009 Cup of Excellence Competition in Guatemala! Big news all around. We have really improved our communication with the Recinos family over the past year and the process has had its challenges: though Javier and Jorge are young (38), they were raised on Finca Nueva Armenia in a culture of roaster-grower relationships that didn't entail visits, e-mail conversation, and supply-chain transparency. Counter Culture has worked hard this year to bring the whole supply chain relationship into line with our Direct Trade purchasing model and gain everyone's trust, and we have high expectations for this relationship and the coffee that comes out of it over the next few years. This year, we have doubled the amount of coffee that we buy from the farm, which is great news for the Recinoses and for all of our customers: this has been one of the most consistent, delicious coffees we have had from Central America and it comes from a farm with an incredible commitment to the environment. In addition to adopting organic certification early (the late 1990s), Finca Nueva Armenia completed the process of certifying the old-growth, diverse canopy of shade on their farm with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's Bird-Friendly seal last year and they have also recently joined a national association to designate their farm as a private natural reserve. I often say that organic farming is so much more of a commitment to the soil, water, and environment than most consumers realize when they hear "no synthetic chemicals," but the dedication that these guys have to conservation on their farm is like none I have ever seen.
This year's harvest has just ended at Finca Nueva Armenia, and I was lucky enough to cup a few samples from the farm, including their Cup of Excellence lot, with the brothers Recinos at the offices of CAMEC, the exporter. These guys have little experience with lot separation for cup quality, only for size and density of bean, so I did everything I could to get them excited about the cupping process and the potential for recognizing some amazing small lots of coffee if they separate their Typica variety coffee from their Bourbon variety, for example. Both Counter Culture's lot and the Cup of Excellence lot come from a part of the farm that is almost entirely Typica variety and both coffees were deliciously sweet with a juicy, orange-y acidity. We also visited the mill where the Recinoses process their coffee, and I got to see Counter Culture's lot waiting in the all-important reposo, or rest, phase before export in April. I can hardly wait!
After a great few days together, it was time for me to jump on a bus and head east to Esquipulas – home to a famous carving of Christ out of black wood and a major destination for Guatemalan religious tourism – where I would meet Tim Hill for visits to Finca Pashapa and Finca El Puente. More to come from Honduras!
Back From the Road: Our Annual Nicaragua Trip, 2009
I really believed that I would be able to send an update "from the road" on last week's Nicaragua trip, but time flies when there's so much to see and do! I just returned from leading Counter Culture Coffee's annual pilgrimage to San Ramón, Nicaragua, where we take a small group of our wholesale customers each January to spend a week learning about coffee growing and processing, about building relationships, and about the amazing work that goes into crafting high-quality coffee. Joining me this year were Amanda Ventresca of Everyman Espresso; Denise Hall and Bernie Tostanowski of the Culinary Institute of America; Lana Labermeier of Big Bear Café; Jocelyne Finnagan of Tryst, Open City, and The Diner; Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen; and Counter Culture Coffee's own Cindy Chang.
After a smooth flight to Nicaragua and an easy trip up to San Ramón (a nice contrast to my last trip) our group of 8 arrived at Finca Esperanza Verde hungry for knowledge and the adventurous cooking of the farm's resident culinary expert, Alba. As a side note, in addition to Alba's cooking, her warmth and infectious laugh quickly made her a go-to person for entertainment and the group's favorite person at the farm. From one of the farm's hiking trails, we saw our first coffee plants on a part of the farm known as la sombra, or "the shade." The farm's 2007-Cup-of-Excellence lot came from this piece of the farm and almost everyone attributes much of that success to the environment provided by the shade canopy, which is one of the tallest, oldest, and most diverse canopies that I have seen, period. We also watched Pascual and the staff of the farm's small wet mill measure the day's coffee picking, separate the unripe and low quality cherry in a flotation tank, and depulp the coffee beans. Over the next few days, we were able to follow that lot of coffee as it fermented for 40 hours and was then washed carefully and laid out to dry on screens at the farm.
Having learned the process, we got the chance to put our ripe-cherry-picking skills to the test the next day as we spent the morning in the fields at FEV. At the end of three hours, the eight of us gringos and the farm manager, Pascual, picked a total of 4.5 buckets' worth of coffee (which, for reference, is about as much as a single skilled coffee picker could pick in a day – not so impressive).
Over the next few days, we would see the same process on various farms around San Ramón and discuss, as a group, the individual farms' environmental conditions, milling methods, and plant health. We noticed some dramatic differences, especially considering the small size and geographic range of the farms, which helps explain why tasting coffee from single farms, separated, can be a great exercise but also a daunting one!
We finished the seed-to-export chain with a trip to the dry mill, Beneficio La Pita, where the coffee is fully dried, stored, and prepared for export. We cupped a few samples there, as well, including coffee from FEV that still took the table by storm even though it wasn't their highest quality stuff! Mark my words, I think this could be a very delicious year.
But the trip wasn't all business, of course. As we learned about the coffee seed-to-export process, we also got to meet an ex-Sandinista soldier and hear his story, drink Nicaraguan rum, take a (chilly!) dip in a local river, play a lot of cards, visit a larger-scale conventional coffee farm in the area for a different perspective, learn to make nacatamales (a traditional Nicaraguan dish) and tour a small chocolate-making operation – one of only two in the country – that sources and roasts organic local cacao and makes delicious chocolate with only two ingredients: cacao and sugar.
I love this trip because, as many times as I've visited these same farms and seen the same process, I learn something new each time from the great people that travel with me and see it all with fresh eyes. As one member of our group told Javier Martinez (the talented and dedicated farmer that I mentioned in my trip report from December), "It's impossible to see your farm, and to see what you do, and not be inspired to keep doing more on our end. Thank you so much." We are all part of the chain that makes quality possible: may we always remember that responsibility!
Take care of the coffee,